In our last article we discussed Van Til’s notion of the “limiting concept.” And we also attempted to define the nature of the limiting concept, and to indicate the causes for the necessity of working with them. We stated that limiting concepts arise: 1. When in the light of revelation the finite mind of man attempts to form a conception of the Infinite; 2. When earthly man, in the light of the same revelation, conceives of the “things which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor entered into the heart of man.” 3. When, on the other hand, the Church is called to define and limit the truth of God over against the errors of evil men, and the false philosophy of the world.

However, if I consider the instances in his book in which Van Til applies his idea of the limiting concept, I fear, that he will not so define it as I have attempted to do. Sometimes I receive the impression that with him the notion of limiting concept is akin to that of “working hypothesis,” a theory which one accepts for the time being as true in his search for the truth, but the truth of which must be still established and proved, and, perhaps, must be further defined and altered. And if this be the case, I cannot accept his notion of the limiting concept, nor consider that the confessions of the Church are limiting concepts in this sense of the word. Let us call attention to a few of these instances in Van Til’s book.

On p. 59 he writes:

“With Zwier we believe that this criticism of Schilder’s is not to the point (De Wachter, Nov. 21, 1939, Jan. 30, 1940). For better or for worse Synod meant to teach that God has a certain attitude of favor toward the reprobate. The use of a broad popular phrase gives no justification for drawing such consequences as Schilder has drawn. Besides, the broad phrase itself expresses the fact that God loves all His creatures. And as for the idea that God loves all creatureliness as such, including the creatureliness of the devil this is, we believe intelligible only if we use it as a limiting concept. If not so used, it is an empty concept. Schilder himself has warned us to think concretely. And thinking concretely implies the use of such universals as ‘creatureliness’ as limiting concepts only.”

To the name notion of “creatureliness” the author refers on p. 95:

“Accordingly we would not speak of God’s loving creatureliness always and everywhere. Schilder uses this idea. He says that God greatly loves creatureliness everywhere, whether in the drunkard, the anti- Christ, or the devil. (See Zwier’s discussion in De Watcher, Nov. 2, 1939). Creatureliness is then conceived statically, as though it were something to be found anywhere and everywhere and always by itself. But creatureliness should be used as a limiting concept. It is never found in moral beings, whether men or angels, except in connection with an ethical reaction, positive or negative. We cannot intelligently speak of God’s loving creatureliness in the devil. God’s good pleasure pertains no doubt to the devil. But that is because the devil is frustrated in his opposition to God. God has once upon a time loved the devil. But that was before the devil was the devil. We shall make no progress on the common grace problem with the help of abstractions.”

I confess that here I do not clearly understand the author’s meaning of the term “limiting concept.” How the concept “creatureliness” can be an empty concept when used without limitation, but becomes a material concept with definite contents when used as a “limiting concept,” I fail to understand. I admit, of course, that pure “creatureliness” does not exist anywhere, not only not in moral beings, but strictly nowhere, for creation is not a Conglomeration of separate creatures, but an organic whole. It is often alleged that, though God hates the fallen and: sinful “world,” He loves the world as His creation. But this is a pure abstraction. The “world” as a pure creation of God exists nowhere. And the same is true of “creatureliness.” It simply never actually exists by itself. But this does not make the concept creatureliness an empty one. One can very readily define its contents. Off hand, it implies such notions as gifts and talents, intelligence, will, power, dependence, obligation, activity, development, etc. Of course, the moment I draw a conclusion from this abstract universal conception of “creatureliness” to the concretely existing creature, I make a fundamental mistake. I cannot possibly argue thus: 1. God loves “creatureliness” (which is a pure abstraction). 2. There is creatureliness in the devil (which is a very concrete form of creatureliness). 3. Therefore, God loves the devil. The very contrary of this conclusion is the truth. For, exactly because all creatureliness is of God, and because what is of God must be directed to His glory, and because the devil turns all his creatureliness against the living God, God hates the devil. But even so I do not use the concept “creatureliness” as a limiting concept. I simply maintain that it is a pure abstraction, that as such it does not exist anywhere, and that, therefore the judgment: “God loves creatureliness,” is false, because it presents the abstract as concretely existing as an object of the love of God. But we feel that, perhaps, we do not quite understand! Van Til’s idea of the “limiting concept,” and that he would render us a service if he would clearly define, his notion of it, and could tell us exactly under what conditions he would have it employed.

The same desire for more light on the subject is aroused by the following paragraph:

“But we must go further than this. Man was originally created good. That is to say, there was (as? H. H.) a matter of fact, an ethical reaction on the part of man, and this ethical reaction was approved by God. It may be said that God created man with a good nature, but that the test was still to come whether he would voluntarily live in accord) with his good nature. But surely Adam could not live for a second without acting morally. The ‘good nature’ of Adam cannot be taken otherwise than as a limiting concept. Further still, the decisive representative act was still to come. Granted that Adam’s nature was an active nature, this active nature itself must be taken as a limiting concept in relation to the decisive ethical reaction that was to take place in connection with the probationary command. This goes to prove that the representative act of obedience or disobedience presupposed for its possibility the revelational character of everything created. It goes to prove further, that as an aspect of that revelatory character of everything created must be taken man’s good ethical reaction. To be sure, this good reaction was not the consummated good that shall be obtained in the case of those that will be in glory. Yet it was a good ethical reaction. It was good not so much in a lower sense as in an earlier sense.” p. 94.

Now, I understand that all this must be viewed and understood in the light of Van Til’s conception of the “covenant of works.” For us, who have become quite accustomed to the repudiation of the implications of this so-called “covenant of works,” there is a danger of trying to understand (and, therefore, of failing to understand completely) Van Til’s notion of the “good nature of Adam as a limiting concept” from the viewpoint of our own conception of Adam’s relation to God in the state of original rectitude. It is well, therefore, that we remember that Van Til labors with the traditional conception of the “covenant of works.” According to this conception Adam’s state would have been changed, and, accordingly, God’s attitude toward him would ‘have been altered, even had he obeyed the “probationary command.” If he disobeyed, his state would be changed to that of a guilty and damnable sinner, and God’s attitude would have been changed to that of wrath; if he obeyed, his state would have been changed to that of highest and heavenly glory, of “the consummated good” and God’s attitude would have become that of permanent favor. In other words, Adam’s good works, his good ethical reaction to God’s revelation, merited a higher good, eternal life. Now, for a time (it makes no particle of difference how long, a day, a week, a year, or a hundred years) Adam’s reaction was good. He obeyed. Not only did he not immediately eat of the tree of knowledge, but all his ethical reactions were good. Van Til draws still another conclusion from this fact. According to him, the elect and the reprobate were in him, and represented by him. Hence, according to Van Til, it may be said that for a time the elect and reprobate both did good works in Adam, and God loved them both in the original state of righteousness.

But now Van Til, if I understand him correctly, perceives a difficulty. Before the final act of disobedience, Adam’s nature was constantly active, and the ethical reaction of that nature was constantly good. What is the inevitable conclusion of this fact, when viewed in the light of the “covenant of works” theory? This, of course, that all this time before the fall (it makes no difference how long) Adam really merited eternal life, or, at least, merited more than he had in Paradise, for himself and for his posterity. Every good ethical reaction of Adam was meritorious. This leads to the question: what became of this reward? Evidently, it was all cancelled by the later act of disobedience on the part of Adam. What then? When viewed in the light of this later act of disobedience, can we still say without qualification that Adam’s nature before the fall was a “good nature,” and that his ethical reaction was a good ethical reaction? To this Van Til replies: “The ‘good nature’ of Adam cannot be taken otherwise than as a limiting concept.” And again: “Granted that Adam’s nature was an active nature, this active nature itself must be taken as a limiting concept in relation to the decisive ethical reaction that was to take place in connection with the probationary command,” And here, it seems, the term “limiting concept” is employed in the sense of “a concept with qualification.” For the time being the nature of Adam appears and reacts as a good nature. But when viewed in the light of what took place later, that nature proved not to be good without qualifications. It was good in a limited sense.

If we misinterpret Van Til’s meaning, we trust that he will let us, know, and explain himself.

In the meantime, we do not share Van Til’s conception of the “covenant of works,” and certainly not his idea that Adam in the state before the fall, and bv his good ethical reaction, represented both the elect and the reprobate. And for the same reason we have no difficulty of taking the statement that Adam was created “good and after God’s own image,” without qualification.

But even so, and even if we have interpreted Van Til’s notion of the limiting concept in this particular passage of his book correctly, we still have no very clear idea of what he means by the term “limiting concept.” He certainly could do us a favor by serving us with a definition.